Between Fame and Failure: The legacy of Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

By Uthman Lateef

Seldom do people in our contemporary world rise to heights or slump to lows and annex the public imagination, arousing sentiments of grief, loss and world-weariness, quite like Michael Jackson. His death, amid extensive preparation for his comeback tour, ‘This is It’, came as a cataclysmic shock to his fans, an abrupt jolt to cynics who had so many unanswered questions, and a pensive reminder to us all about the fragility of human affairs. ‘This is it’ and it really was ‘it’.

Michael Jackson’s life was one clouded by so many abnormalities; his early rise to fame and warped transition to adulthood, radical colour alteration, obsessive reliance on cosmetic surgery and Peter Pan-like persona allowed the unapologetic media machine to exploit his bizarre antics for worldwide public consumption. Michael Jackson became the world’s best loved phantom, a character that thrived on media publicity and shaped his existence around the ‘off the wall’, ironically the title of his fifth studio album released in 1979.

Michael was a tragic victim of his own success. This, because the success he found was in the realm of an ever-changing entertainment industry; Michael was neither always relevant nor always admired. His success was set on a shaky pedestal from where it and he was then knocked down. Where the literary critic William D. Howells (1837-1920) once remarked that ‘What the American public wants in the theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending’, this time the happy beginning ended with a tragedy as it did for Elvis Presley and countless others who became entangled into a world of false promises; once the initial glitter had worn off, the ever tedious task of maintaining appearances was no ‘Thriller’. Despite the money and fame, Michael Jackson was said to have died an extremely lonely man.

“But as for him who shall turn away from remembering Me – his shall be a life of narrow scope and on the Day of Resurrection We shall raise him up blind.” Al-Qur’an 39:23

Descriptions of Michael Jackson in life and now in death overflow with superlatives from ‘the King of Pop’ to the ‘Greatest’. The public grief following his sudden demise was evidenced, in part, by the so-far 12 suicides in his memory, the first of whom was a Tunisian teenage girl. That someone could take their life because Michael Jackson had died is a patent example of the extent to which the lives of some people are entirely shaped around and dependent on the artificially media produced image of a celebrity. Clearly then, the vacuum of our experiences are made emptier by our anxious straining with the artificial to fill them synthetically. Where Michael was plagued by his desire to be someone so unnaturally different, then we too, in our adulation of him may be filling our vacuums with the artificial. Celebrities like Michael are of course creations of the media and there is a danger that our fascination with such celebrities makes them receptacles into which we pour own purposelessness. Where the celebrity is the creature of the tabloid press, music videos and worldwide gossip, this very agency which gives the celebrity his name and fame is the very same agency that in turn destroys him. As Michael, and others who took his path, was ‘made’ by publicity, so too will he be ‘unmade’ by publicity. And then where does that leave his die-hard fans?

In our obsession with celebrities and entertainment we fail to give recognition to the oftentimes unsung heroes – doctors, teachers, aid workers. Their biographies become dry and unglamorous and are unable to satiate our thirst for gossip and scandal. Their accounts nevertheless are usually purposeful and genuine. Where one eulogy of Michael was that ‘he made the whole world dance’, then in the realm of serious pursuits where one labours to fulfil the purpose of his existence, Michael has no relevance. This is not to deny the good that Michael was known to have done; his care for children and world poverty drove him to donate large sums of money to alleviate world afflictions. But it is not the purpose of this article to exonerate or condemn Michael; it is instead an attempt to place things into perspective.

“Know that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying, (in rivalry) among yourselves, riches and children. Here is a similitude: How rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight (the hearts of) the tillers; soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away.” Al-Qur’an 57:20

The verse is a powerful reminder of the illusory and ephemeral nature of our world. If we allow our enjoyments to define us, so that play, amusement, pomp, boasting and taking indulgent delight in wealth, become the raison d’être of our existence, then soon enough whatever we have amassed for our or others’ gluttonous consumption will wither away; it will cease to be the means for our contentment and will inversely become our grief and remorse because it does not remain nor is it ever enough. Likewise, a celebrity’s fame soon withers as time expires; Michael’s plan to reverse the negativity he had received during his high-profile trials in the US by performing a staggering 50 shows scheduled only weeks after his death should bring to mind the permanently relevant advice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who once drew some lines in the sand, and said:

“This [line] is Man, and this is his hope, and [the third line, between them] is his appointed time for death. So while he is in this state [in hope] the closer line [death] takes him.”

Perhaps it was too late for Michael to look attentively at the ‘Man in the Mirror’ and ask him ‘to change his ways’. Where Michael was killed by time – suffocated and then starved by his own fame, the man we see in the mirror is still a reminder to us that a lot needs to change. Islam promotes an awareness far removed from vain pursuits that provide only an intermittent thrill at the expense of what is more profound, life-changing, and what leads to the permanent –

“All that is on earth will perish: But the Face of your Lord will abide (for ever),- full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour.” 55: 26-27.

The Islamic Shari’ah aims at the protection of an individual from all forms of exploitation and society from the harms of an individual. Its focus on the needs of the society before the desires of the individual ensures that one person’s pursuits, of whatever type, are not at the detriment of the healthy functioning of society.

In essence, there is no real tragedy in Michael Jackson’s fall, for he has returned to his proper anonymous and original station. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reminded his last audience in his last sermon,

‘Oh people, all of you are from Adam, and Adam was from dust.’

Michael will, as we all will, become passé, pass out of the picture; the bright lights, music, entertainment, will soon be replaced by a real world not glossed over by synthetic, a real ‘Neverland’ where people really never die.

And it is the seeking of the good of that abode that we must make our priority in life.